Honolulu Advertiser

SECOND OPINION by Cliff Slater

July 28, 2003


‘Pay to play’? Not everyone

Recently Michael Matsumoto, CEO of SSFM International Inc., one of our leading engineering firms, pled no contest to a charge of money laundering and campaign finance violations involving more than $140,000 in illegal contributions to the last Harris mayoral campaign.[i]

SSFM garnered over $7 million in City business just in the last two years of which $4.6 million was for the BRT project.[ii]

Judge Sakamoto sentenced Matsumoto to a fine and community service; no jail time — not even probation.

During sentencing, the judge justified the light sentence by saying, “Matsumoto engaged in a common pattern and practice that has existed for several years and has been through several generations of campaigns.”[iii] In other words, “everybody did it.”

But everybody did not do it. The overwhelming majority of engineers and architects in Hawaii have not engaged in undermining the political process — only a few have.

And so what message does this sentence send to all the many architects and engineers who refused to help corrupt City Hall? These are people who passed up the opportunity to “pay to play,” as the head of the Campaign Spending Commission calls it. They passed it up believing that sooner or later those who were guilty of the practice would get their comeuppance.

But they did not — not even probation.

What kind of message does this sentence send to the have-nots when someone who uses $140,000 to corrupt the electoral process gets off free, while someone who steals $100 from a gas station gets a year in jail?

Doesn’t this say to the have-nots that there is one system for the establishment and an entirely different one for those without the right connections? Doesn’t this help undermine our entire social system? If you cannot get fair and equal treatment under the law, why should you respect it?

And what does this sentence do to the morale of the City’s prosecutors? What is the point of their working overtime on such cases when the perpetrator gets off free?

What does this do to the whole sentencing process for subsequent offenders of the same crime? Can’t they demand a similar sentence? Can they plead they were only undermining the electoral process?

And on top of everything, we should ask why this blatant use of surrogates to launder political contributions is only a misdemeanor? Corrupting the electoral process should be a hanging offense — up there with rape and child molesting.

The Legislature has been unwilling to make this crime what it should be — a felony. It is understandable; those most liable to be convicted of such an offense are unlikely to want to increase the penalty for it.

“Pay to play” seems particularly rampant in transit planning. Virtually all of the $20 million spent so far for BRT plans has been by way of non-bid contracts.

Transit planning seems to have become a new way to elicit campaign contributions by dangling multimillion-dollar planning funds in front of architects and engineers. Whether the “vision” ever gets built is quite irrelevant.

Such a fundraising scheme is an incredible opportunity for a politician hoping to be reelected. Were it illegal for consultants on non-bid contracts to make political contributions, it would likely be the last we would hear of any of these transit “visions.”

All in all, the fact of the lack of punishment for corrupting the electoral process, the offense remaining a misdemeanor instead of a felony and the lack of legislative action on “pay to play” suggests to me, and I suspect many others, that the “old boy network” is intact and healthy.

Cliff Slater is a regular columnnist whose footnoted columns are at www.lava.net/cslater

[ii] Breakdown of SFFM’s City work. Channel 4 News at their website.